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‘Big Dig’ May Be in Boston, but Its Roots Are on the Hill

“In 1994 and 1995, there was very little federal involvement at all in the Big Dig, not only from Congress but from the Federal Highway Administration and the Department of Transportation,” said Scott Amey, with the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group.

The costs rose dramatically as additional roadway was added to the project and changes meant delays, which meant inflation, Salvucci said. And then the questions snowballed.

In 1995, POGO released a blistering report, pointing out costs had ballooned from an estimated $2.3 billion to $9.6 billion. POGO called on the Department of Transportation to freeze federal funding for the project “until solutions are found for the many cost, design and managerial problems that plague this project.”

The report stated, “The federal government is responsible for 80% to 90% of the final cost, but is playing almost no oversight role in how the money is being spent. ... The federal government has written a blank check to Massachusetts, who in turn has given free rein to the primary contractor, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas.”

Then, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) leapt into action. “He brought in the contractors and made them jump through a bunch of hoops. Reports had to be submitted on a semi-annual basis.” Wolf would continue to use his committee powers to call for increased oversight, requesting audits, financial reports and testimony from key officials throughout the rest of the projects duration.

Separately, as chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, John McCain (R-Ariz.) also called for increased scrutiny of the project.

“When McCain was chairman of Commerce, and Wolf was chairman of Transportation, they and the Massachusetts delegation did just a five-star job of oversight,” said Kenneth Mead, the inspector general of the Department of Transportation from 1997 to 2006, who know works for the law firm Baker Botts.

But Scott Harshbarger, the Massachusetts attorney general from 1991 to 1999, said that when he ran for governor as a Democrat in 1998, he tried to make the Republican administration of the Big Dig a central part of his campaign, but Capitol Hill leaders objected.

“People were asking me not to raise the issue. It was like I was trying to kill the golden goose,” he said. “In 1997-98, they were saying, ‘You’re giving McCain ammunition every time you raise the question.’”

Exasperation Spreads
Meanwhile, McCain, a self-styled pork-buster, was furious about all the federal dollars going to the project, and he became increasingly involved with attempts to step up oversight.

In the summer of 2000, he introduced legislation to formally cap federal funding for the Big Dig, whose costs now exceeded $13 billion.

“In my view, a federal cap would help ensure the project managers rein in their runaway costs and project overruns because they won’t be able to expect the rest of the nation’s highway dollars to be funneled into their project,” McCain said in a statement at the time.

Congress passed the cap of $8.549 billion that year. While Interstate highway dollars already had been capped in 1991, this second cap went even further, ensuring that no federal transportation dollars — not even money that is usually at the state’s discretion — went to the Big Dig.

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